Did you know that if you are a pianist, you are also a superhero?
Your superpowers include making 10 fingers fly across the keys in intricate patterns, singing with pieces of wood and iron, and interpreting swarms of tiny black dots. You, my friend, are amazing.
At some point, you may decide to add to your superpowers playing from memory. You’ve considered the pros and cons. You’ve read about the four types of musical memory. You’ve sat down at the piano.
… Now what?
As a piano superhero, you know that thoughtful, deliberate practice is the way to go. You know that mere repetition will burn you when you least expect it. But how do you deliberately practice a mental skill? Here are three simple ways.
1. Mark your safe zones
First, carve up your piece into smaller parts. These parts must make sense given the structure of the piece. I once had a teacher at a music festival who told me to break up a Bach fugue into 10 measure chunks for memorization. Those chunks made zero sense to me, so I didn’t do it (sorry, not sorry).
If you need a visual, close your eyes and imagine the designated turkey carver at your Thanksgiving table. Do they neatly separate the wings, thighs, and breast? Or do they hack the bird into random pieces? I know, I’m wincing too. Poor bird.
Cut up your piece into its logical parts, whether it’s key areas, formal sections, different themes, etc. This is you exercising the fourth and most important type of musical memory: structural memory.
Now, practice starting from the beginning of each section, making those beginnings safe zones for you to return to or skip to if needed. If the safe zones are too far apart, designate a few more. Even if you never use them, you’re doing good work by mapping the piece in your head.
2. Drop the needle
One of the many rites of passages for conservatory students is the much-feared “drop the needle” test in music history class. Your professor assigns you a long listening list, say Haydn’s London Symphonies, and then plays a random portion of one for you to identify, as if dropping the needle randomly onto a record.
You can use the same test in your practice. When you get pretty comfortable with your safe zones, the next step is to drop the needle: start from random places in your piece.
If it takes you longer than a few seconds to get your bearings, it’s worth starting there your next few practice sessions.
3. Explain the gaps
When they have memory slips, people often claim, wide-eyed with shock, that “that mistake has never happened before.”
While that may be true, I can almost guarantee that that type of mistake has happened before. Whether the source of the mistake is the first, second, third or fourth type of musical memory, the way to fix it is to identify the type and then consciously develop a patch for the gap.
Practically, here’s how you do it: when running a piece from memory, record yourself or have a friend mark every moment your memory goes blank or fuzzy. Be as specific as you can: which hand? Which measure? Which note?
Now, rather than simply playing it again, you must explain to yourself why the gap exists. Is it because your left hand is on autopilot and you don’t actually know the bass-line? Is it because you don’t fully understand the harmonic function of that one funky chord? Is it because you haven’t physically internalized that melodic interval in your right hand?
Do not repeat the passage until you know exactly what happened. Only then have you patched the gap in a conscious fashion, upping the odds that the patch will stick.
Confidence in all challenging pursuits, including memorization, comes from preparation, specifically, the right kind of preparation.
Using these techniques, you can work on your memorization and test it effectively in the practice room. Along the way, you’ve learned the piece in more detail and shored up some of your memory weaknesses. Win win win!
You don your imaginary cape and go out on stage, ready to do good in the world.